Meaningful Learning Over the Measurement of Learning

Note: This post is one in a series on The Agile Schools Manifesto that I introduced in an earlier post.

Have you ever had one of those moments? The bell rings to end class and every person in the room jumps with surprise because the engagement level was too high for a trivial detail like the time/space continuum to distract anyone. As everyone begins to transition to the next class period as if waking from a really great dream, you steal a brief moment to revel in the joy of learning as it should be–filled with collaborative curiosity and exploration.

What price would you put on that class period? What would you pay (or how much prep would you be willing to do) in order to guarantee that every class period resulted in the same level of learning as that class period?

Here is a different set of questions: What grade would everyone get for the learning during that class? How would you fit that class into your grade book or share it on the parent portal?

I don’t mean to be a buzzkill, but I’m afraid that too often in school meaningful learning is subordinated by our over-emphasis on measuring learning. I know that the dream class as described above (they do happen!) involved quality learning, but I don’t have to think long about a string of those classes in a row before I start getting this nagging sense of guilt from the empty columns of my PowerSchool grade book (see my post on individuals over tools). Even though I know that great learning took place during that dream class, the difficulty of measuring and reporting it in the context of a typical school system actually makes me question myself and the planning that led to the highly engaged class.

“But if I can’t measure the learning, how do I know there was any learning at all?” Agile education and I are not saying that measurement of learning is unimportant, but rather that the learning is a higher aim and priority than our ability to measure it. And, when it comes to learning, measurement isn’t the exact science we attempt to make out to be. It can be falsely comforting to stick with easy to measure assessments that are “straightforward” and “airtight” on PowerSchool or during Parent/Teacher conferences, but that tendency helps perpetuate a culture of chasing after grades instead of focusing on learning.

We can assess the learning of that dream class, but it won’t be communicated by a 7.5 out of 10 on a quiz. No, the dream class learning will be revealed by observation and conversation, reflection and anecdote. This type of evidence is no less valid or important than neat and tidy columns of quiz scores. Formative assessments and professional observations are vital components of practice that prioritizes meaningful learning over the measurement of learning.

Of course, let’s measure learning, but let’s find ways for our measurements to support meaningful learning. Collect anecdotal evidence and video feedback from students. Paste urls for Padlet walls or Google Shared folders into columns/comments in your digital grade book or parent portal. Pack portfolios full of formal and informal artifacts of learning. As the new school year begins, let’s commit to finding and sharing practical new assessments that better support a long string of dream classes and that communicate all the dreamy and essential learning to parents, students, colleagues, and ourselves.




Filed under Classroom Ideas, Reflection

4 responses to “Meaningful Learning Over the Measurement of Learning

  1. Scott,

    From looking at your other posts, I think we’re up to a lot of similar things.

    Your statement “This type of evidence is no less valid or important than neat and tidy columns of quiz scores” is right on, but I’d take it even a little further. Paradoxically, the inclusion of those quiz scores — even just a few of them — creates a hierarchy of values just as rigid as the strict dividing lines between class periods and courses. And quiz scores, that simulacrum of value, automatically grants itself primacy over everything else. And if you haven’t introduced them in your own class, likely someone has introduced them somewhere else, rendering your whole class of lower worth. Thus, poetry can provide pleasure, but, when push comes to shove, that pleasure must find its place on the hierarchy, several notches down from quiz scores.

    I want to be able to embrace this tension, to see compromise as the way forward. But the other side (the one populated with quizzes, grades, scores, testing, etc.) is such a dictator and a propagandist. Whereas those of us on the more humane side of the spectrum usually make room for them, that civility not reciprocated. And I don’t mean necessarily by policymakers. I’m talking about in people’s minds. It’s just the way the conversation about scores, marks, or grades seems to shut down the mind, to shut down the conversation, to shut down the kind of moment you describe in your post.

    Great post, too!

    • It seems we are on very similar learning paths, Arthur. I agree with your point about the mental tyranny of the quiz. Numbers themselves seem broken to me. I feel that I can talk all I want about proficiency and growth, but the second an actual number enters the picture, the number dominates the mental landscape of the community, creating the hierarchy you describe.
      I also identify with your description of making space and then feeling taken advantage of. I’m trying to remember my own transformation. Did people make space for me when I defended status quo and prioritized measurement of learning? How did they pull me along the spectrum toward themselves? The optimist in me is refusing to believe that making space, even for dictators and propagandists, isn’t part of the solution, but I’m not sure about next steps beyond patiently asking questions that will become earworms.
      Thanks for your comments. My interactions with you always push my thinking forward.

  2. Pingback: The Problem With “Measure” | Re-Vision

  3. Pingback: The Problem With “Measure” | Teachers Going Gradeless

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